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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Mar 19, 2023

On this episode of Unsupervised Learning, Razib hosts three guests, Sarah Haider of A Special Place in HellShadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute and Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept. Razib, Haider, Hamid and Hussain discuss the current state of the culture from the perspective of “brown” observers of the public sphere dominated by woke vs. anti-woke factions. Despite ideological differences, all four are skeptical of the ideological orthodoxies regnant in American culture, even though one, Hamid, identifies strongly as a partisan Democrat who is liberal.

In a wide-ranging conversation (which begins with a review of how to pronounce each other’s names), they discuss the case of Raquel Evita Saraswati, a woman Haider knew casually from the social activism sphere, who represented herself as a queer Muslim of Arab, Latino and South-Asian background. Saraswati, a Muslim who somewhat perplexingly co-opted the name of a Hindu goddess as her surname, was born Rachel Elizabeth Seidel and is of British, German and Italian ancestry. Due to her fifteen years of lying about her ethnic background, she was recently forced out of a position as chief equity and inclusion officer for the American Friends Service Committee. Haider and Hamid, in particular, discuss the pressure felt in some social justice movements for people to present incongruous backgrounds, like being a “queer Muslim,” and how it has created a demand that is being satisfied by grifters like Saraswati.

Saraswati highlights the role of religion and how it is inextricably connected to brown identity in the US, whether it is coded Muslim or Hindu. Razib and Haider, both atheists from a Muslim background, and Hamid and Hussain, both believing Muslims, discuss the American religious scene in the wake of New Atheism and the social and functional value of religion in an age where moral frameworks have been overthrown and updated. Hamid questions Haider on her views on the value of religious wisdom in maintaining and perpetuating social norms that she supports, like the idea that there are two sexes and her deemphasis on the importance of “gender identity.” Hussain explains that religion, in a philosophical sense, should be considered distinctively from a more primal and animistic set of intuitions. All four meditate on the fact that they are outsiders not by dint of their race or immigrant background (or parental immigrant background), but their dissent from the dominant social norms of the ascendant professional-managerial class.